Last night LEWIS PR and the BBC College of Journalism brought together a panel of journalists to debate the relevance and evolution of brand journalism and its role in the future of news.
Providing their perspectives were Keith Beech, head of content at LEWIS PR and former BBC journalist, joined by Sian Kevill, CEO of MAKE World Media, a former Editor of Newsnight and at BBC World; Martin Moore, Director of the Media Standards Trust and Robert Jaques, an experienced and increasingly busy brand journalist.
The world of news, journalism and media is evolving at a faster rate than almost any other time. Pressure to develop more content, for more channels, with fewer resources means that mainstream media companies are having to adapt and face growing competition from all areas. Alongside this, businesses, NGOs and charities are now investing heavily in producing content and making it available directly to a worldwide audience.
Brand journalism is not new but it quickly became clear that the concept is still one shrouded in confusion. There seems to be an increasingly grey area between traditional news reporting and content created and paid for by a brand that mimics this traditional news. Companies have been creating their own content for decades, but this is usually marketing, advertising and PR. increasingly these organisations are investing in a serious, long-term commitment to share information, to join a discussion and to add value through content.
From the audience there were staunch proponents who insisted that any journalist who takes on brand journalism is compromised. If an organisation pays a journalist or media organisation to create a piece of editorially independent content, is that content less valid or somehow tainted? I would say not. Of course, a lot of the time editorial independence is not guaranteed in these circumstances.
Moore talked of inherent self-censorship when writing for a brand. Personally, I think that even traditional journalism suffers a degree of self-censorship, you only need to look at how different publications treat the same news story to see this.
Despite these differing viewpoints, the one resounding unanimous agreement was that when content is created on behalf of a brand, it needs to be clearly indicated as such. Those brands that too closely try to glean validity through mimicry and disguises its origins risks doing more harm than good, to the brand and to the author.
To quote Jaques: “Brand journalism is about using journalistic skills to present content in a thorough, engaging and accessible way.” Having a journalist or media house create content doesn’t add authenticity, but the fact that it is paid for by a company shouldn’t invalidate that content either. Just as there is good and bad journalism, there is clearly good and bad brand journalism. When it is clearly marked, that content – and eventually its platform – should stand on its own merits. Brand journalism can be held to account in the same way that traditional journalism always has been.
In today’s media landscape we are faced with an abundance of channels and platforms to deliver content, but a dearth of resources to create it. Brand journalism offers rich opportunities to fill that gap, but only if it is honest.
All the panellists agreed that this situation is only going to grow, and as Kevill points out, it’s not going to be long before brand journalism works its way into the broadcast media too. The implications are quite profound, but if we start to treat brand journalism with the same respect as its forebears, and hold it to the same standards, we can create an environment where the audience has the power to make an informed choice about the content they consume and the sources they trust.